In its first commentary on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, written days after the event, the New Yorker expressed grave concern that the United States was racing pell-mell into a desert war for which its people were unprepared. This was a crisis, the magazine said, that surprised the nation totally, occurred in a region about which it knows far too little and started amid a disturbing absence of political debate and an alarming burst of strident yellow journalism that uncritically pressed American leaders toward immediate military action.

"One of the inherent beauties of a democracy is the slowness to make war -- the people are reluctant to suffer, to see their sons die, and their reluctance holds a government back -- but last week the wheels raced forward, and, instead of questioning, the columnists cheered," the New Yorker commented.

Four weeks have passed since the invasion. While the sense of crisis has abated, political debate about the nation's present and future course remains as muted as the long-term consequences of the massive U.S. military deployment are unknown. Columnists, however, no longer are cheering in unison. The beginnings of serious divisions are evident.

In its simplest form, the argument concerns the central issues that Americans should address: What are America's interests, how should they be achieved and by what means?

Most attention has focused on the split in the political right. Such erstwhile advocates of force to stop communism as Patrick J. Buchanan and Robert Novak have questioned the official rationale for intervention in the Mideast. Saddam Hussein, they argue, countering President Bush's rhetoric, is a dangerous man but not a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, as Bush has put it. Nor does the threat that Saddam poses to the world rival that presented by Hitler half a century ago.

Not surprisingly, as this debate grows more intense in the media, it is simplistically cast in ideological terms as a debate between "neo-isolationists" and "neo-conservatives," with a mixture of "neo-liberals" and traditional non-interventionists adding to the cacophony.

In fact, the essence of this debate is far more complicated and even profound, for it speaks to the new condition in which America and the world find themselves after the Cold War has passed into history.

Two points can be made. First, Buchanan, Novak and company are correct in disputing the Hitler analogy. Hitler was a threat to the entire world order and civilization. The German military machine, forged by formidable economic and technological proficiency, came close to fulfilling its global ambitions. The fate of the world did hang in the balance.

No similar prospect exists for Iraq's leader. Even if he controlled a majority of Persian Gulf oil reserves, Saddam never would be permitted to dictate economic conditions to the entire world. Nor, appalling though the possible losses might be, is there the slightest doubt about the outcome of war between U.S. forces and Iraq. Iraq would simply cease to exist as a viable society.

Second, Bush was correct in moving swiftly to check Saddam and to display willingness to use combat arms, if necessary. More important, he showed that he understood the critical importance of forming an international alliance to act against Iraq. Therein lies the lesson for the future.

No longer can the United States afford to be the world's policeman. It can and must, however, take the lead in joint international efforts to combat global threats, whether military, economic or environmental, that it will surely face in years to come.

I cannot let this moment pass without expressing personal and professional admiration for one of our own. The performance of Caryle Murphy of The Washington Post, who escaped from Kuwait Monday after spending a month eluding Iraqi invaders and still managing to file superb accounts from the scene, was in the finest traditions of the American press and of reporters who do their jobs whatever the obstacles and hardships.

Equally impressive, and refreshingly so in a time of self-important media celebrities and all-knowing pontificators, was the self-effacing manner in which she responded to interviewers after crossing the desert into Saudi Arabia. Her job was not to give interviews, she said; it was to write stories for her paper. A personal note: At risk of embarrassing her publicly, this modest professional's example provides a source of great pride for journalists everywhere.